Maestro José Antonio Abreu, 1938-2018

A personal reflection on the life and work of “the Maestro” by Mark Churchill

 Maestro Abreu and Mark Churchill

Maestro Abreu and Mark Churchill

As a founding board member of Conservatory Lab Charter School and now member of the board of the Center for Artistry and Scholarship, I’m honored to share some thoughts about the founder of El Sistema, Maestro José Antonio Abreu, on the occasion of his death on March 24, 2018. It has been the greatest privilege of my life and career to know this monumental figure, to learn at his feet, and to work beside him. The significance of his unswerving belief in the power of art to uplift and ennoble every human being has reached around the globe and will undoubtedly touch ever-increasing numbers of lives in the coming decades.

My first encounter with El Sistema was through a half-hour documentary produced by WGBH in the late 1990s. Although yet to be recognized outside of Latin America, all the elements of Maestro Abreu’s beliefs and vision were present:

  • Every human being has the right to a life of dignity and contribution.

  • Every child can learn to experience and express music and art deeply and receive its many benefits.

  • Overcoming poverty and adversity is best done by first nurturing “an affluence of the spirit.”

  • Effective education is based on love, approval, joy and experience within a high-functioning, aspiring, nurturing community. Every child, regardless of conditions, has limitless possibilities and the ability to achieve excellence.

  • Learning organizations never arrive but are always becoming—striving to include more students, higher levels, better teaching. Thus, flexibility, experimentation, and risk-taking are inherent and desirable aspects in every educational program.

On these principles, Maestro Abreu built his empire for good, beginning in 1975 and, at its height, creating 440 music education centers in Venezuela that served over 700,000 children and young people. The story is elegantly told in a recent obituary in The Economist, and Maestro Abreu speaks most directly to his philosophy and approach in his TED Talk of 2007. In addition to Venezuela, today there are nearly 200 El Sistema inspired programs in the United States and many hundreds of others in more than 25 countries.

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Encountering Maestro Abreu’s work directly for the first time was, as so many have described it, a conversion experience. In 2001, on my first of over 35 visits to Venezuela with the New England Conservatory (NEC) Youth Philharmonic, I saw, felt, and believed what Sir Simon Rattle would state in 2006: “There is no more important work that is being done in music now than is being done in Venezuela” and, later, “…more than anything else, I saw in everybody’s faces, what I have always believed music to be about – which is pure joy. Communication and joy!”

Having dreamed of and worked toward uniting the young musicians of the Americas throughout the 1990s, I asked Maestro Abreu to join the effort in 2000. Catching him on the street in Caracas on his cell phone, I made the pitch, and he immediately accepted, forming a partnership that would lead to the founding of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas in 2001, a bridge between El Sistema in Venezuela and the United States, a close and fertile relationship with NEC for nearly 15 years, the awarding of the TED prize to the Maestro in 2009, the establishment of the Abreu Fellows leadership training program and El Sistema USA at NEC in 2010, numerous student and faculty exchanges and collaborations, and a deep personal friendship that transcended all cultural divides.

As Dean of Preparatory and Continuing Education at NEC during those years, I strove to bring El Sistema into the consciousness of my institution in every possible way. As a fervent believer in the value and power of connecting the music that I loved and by which I had been nurtured with every child, young person, and citizen of the United States, I had become discouraged with the worthy but modest efforts to demonstrate and spread that principle. I saw in El Sistema incontrovertible proof of the truth of this proposition, and in Maestro Abreu a leader of true genius who could effectively argue the cause on the world stage. What better lesson for an institution training the next generation of musical leaders: activate your social conscience, think big and creatively, work very hard, and you can change the world with your music! What better defining principle for a traditional arts education institution in the face of the fading relevancy of its core mission?

The Conservatory Lab Charter School instituted an El Sistema-inspired music curriculum in 2010 in order to return to its mission and connect music arts learning more centrally into its goals. Today, Conservatory Lab’s El Sistema curriculum has become one of a handful of the major expressions of El Sistema in the United States, looked to for inspiration and guidance by numerous other programs.  

El Sistema has provided a roadmap for how excellence-driven arts education and performance can be used as a tool for social transformation and it has held up a model of passionate, communicative arts performance practice for the future. But Maestro Abreu often talked of the principles and practices reaching beyond music into other arts and academic pursuits and the power and role of education in general. With further study and analysis, his vision can serve to inform all educational practice, giving us essential insights into what education really means for young people and what can be achieved in a thriving creative and artistic environment. Thank you, Maestro!

For more: Josue Gonzalez, director of El Sistema at Conservatory Lab Charter School, offers his reflections on Maestro Abreu's life and work.
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Mark Churchill is a board member of the Center for Artistry and Scholarship and is Dean Emeritus and Cello Instructor at New England Conservatory. As a founding board member of Conservatory Lab Charter School, he helped oversee the relationship between NEC and CLCS. Founder of El Sistema USA, he is also active in a number of other roles as educator, conductor, and cellist. El Sistema USA is a national support center for the quickly expanding El Sistema movement in the United States.